THE WAR ON BLANK-PAGE TERROR: a personal approach to scriptwriting by Jamie Delano

Introduction by Tabatha Wood

It’s a warm but breezy September morning in 2015. I’m drinking a cup of sweet, black coffee and scrolling through my Facebook feed. I see the event advertisement purely by accident, but my interest is instantly piqued.

BLAM! Writing for Comics. A talk by Jamie Delano, writer of HELLBLAZER and much, much more. 

I know that name. I’ve read graphic novels written by them in my late teens thanks to a rocker/biker bloke who ran the only cool shop in my hometown. The talk is due at my local library later that day. I don’t want to miss this. I feel like, I can’t miss it.

I message my husband and we agree that we’ll go. I sort out a babysitter for the kids. I contact the library and reserve two tickets. Then at 6pm I’m sitting, waiting, face-to-face with the man who wrote John Constantine. 

His talk, the transcript of which I am thrilled to share with you here, was the catalyst for me returning to write fiction. In fact, I doubt you would even be reading this today had it not been for that chance find on social media and my last-minute decision to attend. It still surprises me when I think about it. Grateful to receive the kick I needed, now consumed by the urges of The Word. 

His advice to me as an awkward fledgling writer, still too nervous to spread my wings and take flight,

“It’s scary putting your ‘secret self’ out there – that bit never changes.  But it’s also bollocks to let that be a reason not to. Just write in the way that pleases you and let them pick the bones out.  Most will be in awe that you even tried.”

I’ve been doing exactly that ever since. 

Make no mistake, this is first and foremost a how-to about scriptwriting, but it’s also a unique and honest insight into what it means to be a writer and how it feels to put your heart and soul into the characters you create. 


THE WAR ON BLANK-PAGE TERROR: a personal approach to scriptwriting by Jamie Delano

So, let’s suppose, through the sly vector of soothing bedtime stories and poems, your mother cruelly and recklessly infected you with a pernicious virus called The Word almost before you could speak. Thus dooming you to a life of penury and angst. A prisoner of your own imagination, ill-equipped to deal with the mundane world. 

It’s taken you 60 years to forgive her. And you’re still not sure you even have.

You have spent your formative years reading books and comics. Watching movies. Absorbing the work of others. Sometimes you have enjoyed the experience, been fascinated and intrigued. Sometimes you have been left disappointed. Wanting something more.  

But that early infection has been sustained. Made chronic. Likely fatal. And now the virus drives you to transmit the disease to others.

Where to start? What vehicle will you employ to deliver your unique creative vision to the unwitting audience waiting breathless for your inspiration?

You wrote a bunch of poems in your teens and early twenties. Took pleasure in the manipulation of words. The artful layering of meaning. Their musicality. The way they chime, seductively harmonic, or in dramatic discord.

But every shy, introverted bookish youth writes poetry—doesn’t he? While scarcely anyone reads that self-indulgent nonsense.  

Maybe a novel? Prose was always your first love. But, even after all these years, you still haven’t summoned the energy required to start it. A novel is a daunting prospect. Producing all those words takes time and application. A book is long. A serious undertaking. Have you really got that much to say?  

What if you have but it’s just derivative drivel—an immature imitation of admired and older, wiser writers? A second-rate regurgitation of Ballard, Kerouac, Bill Burroughs…?

You need to find your own voice and trust it.

And anyway you’re busy. You’re still young. There is fun to be had. Drink to be drunk. Other altered states to explore. Political debate to engage in. Romantic tribulation to suffer. And rent to be paid.  

Damn the rent. It forces you to derange yourself with boredom.  

Endlessly ordering other peoples’ books on library shelves. Selling them in a dismal high-street chain store. Re-stocking grubby newsagents’ spinners with stacks of miserable Top Ten paperbacks lugged around the chilly east of England in a Sherpa van. Cutting up dead trees in a wood yard. Ferrying drunks and idiots around your hometown in your taxi.

Time goes by. You haven’t written a word for years. And maybe you have a partner now.  Even a child or two. How the hell did that happen? Damnit—you were supposed to be a writer.

Perhaps it’s too late now to be a contender. Maybe you’re doomed to remain a consumer. Reading. Watching. Listening. Feet up.  Smoke in hand. Observing the relentless growth of your children. And then dying. With everything left unsaid.

Well, serve you right for being so bone-idle.

And then, out of the blue, by some stroke of grace – luck, right place/right time, the kindness of a more diligent friend – opportunity presents. And you seize it. And the opportunity is in comics. Not the medium you imagined—or one, in truth, you know much about. But you’re grateful. And there’s a potential living in it.

Or maybe you are the diligent one. With the energy and self-belief to make things happen.  

You have pursued your dream and run it down. Seduced an editor with a glimpse of your wild creative passion—bedded a juicy commission. However it is that you got to this point, now it’s time to perform. Fulfil the rash promise of your proposal. Earn the right finally to call yourself a writer.

You have to actually sit down at your keyboard and make up a story. Inspire an artist to bring it to life in pictures. And then it’s going to get printed and be preserved immutable forever. And strangers are going to read it.

Oh shit.  

Oh.  

Shit


GETTING STARTED 

All writers must confront that blank-page terror. Daily. Unless they’re soulless hacks content to shovel junk food. Feed undiscerning appetites with fast-fiction plotted by committee.  

At least I assume they do. I speak only from my own experience.  

I may be a deranged egoist manufacturing an illusory enemy—a towering obstacle to be overcome through vainglorious heroic effort.  

I may be intellectually deficient—making hard work of a process more easily accomplished by those who have taken the trouble to learn the rules of fiction. Attend creative writing courses. Understand all that stuff about journeys, conflict, crisis, resolution…  

Others will have to judge.

But my approach to writing is subjective. A kind of act of faith. I have no technical formula to apply to produce a story. I have to rely on instinct. The ability to suspend authorial disbelief. To immerse myself in an interior ocean of possibility and follow the shimmering shoals of imaginary fish that swim there. Harpoon the most intriguing for preservation and presentation.    

It’s a risky and stressful process. I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s easy to screw it up. Some of those fish turn out to be ugly and misshapen when you get them to the surface. Or too ethereal to be described. And you find yourself disappointed. Stories rarely turn out entirely satisfactorily. There’s always some clumsiness that should have been smoothed. A point that could be better made. A basic copy error overlooked and preserved to irritate forever. That’s why writers keep on diving though. Hoping that next time we’ll get it right—come up with a handful of pearls.

The Word is a desperate addiction that will inevitably leave you crazy. But it’s still way better than working for a living.

But enough pompous angst. Let me try and distil my ramshackle creative process a little more in the hope that it might offer insight. Provide a useful perspective on your own personal experience.

There are no rules.  

I have experimented with many scripting styles. In the end it’s down to practise. Everyone evolves their own best way of working based on experience acquired through observation of the gap between the result desired and that achieved.    

The goal is communication. Of ideas and of emotion. For the purpose of entertainment.  The tools are words and pictures—deployed in synergistic combination.

I wrote my first comic-book script over thirty-five years ago. On a manual portable typewriter. With carbon paper and Tippex correction fluid.  

And if you don’t know what those arcane objects are, I refer you to omniscient Google.

Word-processing and the Internet have considerably streamlined the writing and editing process, but my basic approach has remained fairly consistent. With slight adaptations to suit the strengths of particular artistic collaborators. Because, while the writer may provide the inspiration, comics creation is essentially a collaborative process.

But let’s wind back to 1986.  

On the strength of a recommendation from Alan Moore and a few Captain Britain and Doctor Who issues, Karen Berger at DC comics was persuaded to gamble on trusting me to develop Moore’s popular British working-class magician, John Constantine, into a character who could support an ongoing monthly series.

HELLBLAZER was to be a book in the horror genre. Moore had established a few basic parameters for the character, but his interior world was largely unexplored. It seemed natural for me to try and get inside his head – how easily one is led into peril – to take the reader with me to share Constantine’s perception of a disquieting world.

I chose hunger as a theme for the opening story. A spiritual void made physical by a demonic manifestation. It kicks off with a dramatic demonstration of the effects of the supernatural possession on some eclectic New York ‘cannon fodder’. The remainder of the story sets out to explain and resolve that initial set-up in an intriguing and dramatic fashion. 

Logically, to accomplish my desired end, I would have begun by sketching out the basic plot. Breaking the story down roughly into potential scenes. Thinking up some interesting characters for Constantine to interact with and advance the action to its conclusion.  Outlining the probable visual imagery and storytelling. Then filling in and embellishing that outline with dialogue supported by narrative captions.

I say logically. Unfortunately it is rarely so straightforward.

However neatly I may think I have plotted a story, it never survives first-engagement with the keyboard. t is only when I have launched the characters walking and talking that they start to reveal the true essence of the work—literally make it up as they go along. My role is to monitor, and ineffectually shepherd their interactions. To select which bits to visualise and report for dramatic purpose, distilling and intensifying actions and emotions into that strange thing called Story.  

Invariably these characters, and I too, will be surprised by unforeseen events, distracted and led astray. Sometimes the original path will never be rediscovered. Nor the intended destination reached.

And that’s the fun of it for me.  

A real story is rarely tripped over lying by the side of the highway. A writer needs to be prepared to wander. To be led off in pursuit of red-herrings or wild geese along the byways of the imagination. It’s on those shady paths that the most potent charms are encountered and can be looted.  

Of course abandoning the reassurance of map or well-trod plot is not relaxing. In fact it’s terrifying. Especially when there’s a deadline to be arrived at. But if you want a relaxed existence, forget about being a writer.


WRITING THE SCRIPT

So let’s assume that sooner or later, by one process or another – after much smoking, coffee drinking, and exasperated pacing about with muttered cursing – I have a selection of scenes comprising dialogue and narrative in a series of possible locations. Now it has to be refined to a condition that will inspire an artist to work his or her visual magic on it and turn it into a sequential story. 

Because a script does not speak to the reader. There is an artist intervening who must first be entertained and intrigued. Their own imagination captured and co-opted. The script must suck them into the story – evoke not just individual images or set-piece dramatic sequences, but also impart mood, tone, emotion, truth. The interior worlds of the characters. The unwritten back-stories that shape them. 

Art direction is creative writing in itself. Done well, it should imply a kind of ‘theme music’ that the artist can interpret graphically to imbue action with emotion. That doesn’t mean every panel description needs to be a polished essay, a precise algorithm designed solely to produce a particular image. A balance must be struck. But, if words are your thing – and it’s useful if they are – it’s good to take pleasure in their arrangement. Every sentence produced – even if only ever read by editor and artist – is an exercise of a writer’s chosen craft. And practise is the key to development of any skill.

So the script is a tool – but one which has intrinsic beauty in its functionality. Like a fine brush, a well-wrought chisel, an elegant piece of software. A master musician may be able to scrape a workable tune from a crappy homemade violin… but give them a Stradivarius and hear the difference.

In the early years of my career I would scribble stick-figure cartoon pages as an aid to visualising layout and imagery, before typing up panel descriptions. These days that process occurs inside my head.

When I visualise a comic book scene, I tend to see it cinematically at first. I find it helpful to précis the scene’s action, mood and storytelling function in a brief initial paragraph – a bite-sized chunk for the artist to chew on while he savours the detail panel by panel. I am generally less concerned with calling for specific shots and camera-angles than I am with planting the emotional content of the sequence in the artist’s imagination.  

The detailed, artful realisation of layout and storytelling is the artist’s main contribution to the creative process—and experience teaches that the best result is generally achieved by letting them deploy their talent with minimal inhibition.

I may suggest how an individual shot might be working in my head, but I in no way expect that suggestion to be treated as graven in stone. I tend to think of the role of comic scriptwriter as equivalent to that of writer/director in a movie—with the artist as Director of Photography. Dialogue and narration will be attached shot by shot.  

It is important that the rhythms of word and picture are sympathetic.  Syncopated. For comic book narration and dialogue – as with any form of word manipulation – rhythm is the key. There is not a lot of room for words in comics. So it is important that each of them is deployed for maximum effect.  

Most of the work involved in scripting a comic is in the repeated editing of captions and word-balloons to intensify the prose. Trying to make fewer words say more—and give them subtext. Honing and polishing dialogue to an almost poetic intensity, while maintaining a conceit of naturalism. Economy – in both storytelling and narration – is a vital skill to acquire. There is never as much space as you anticipate there will be. However ‘lean and mean’ the intention, your story will invariably seek to expand beyond the available page-count.

It is easy, starting out, to assume that the supply of words is endless… to be profligate in their use. I am certainly guilty of overwriting in some of my early scripts. But you pretty soon learn to be more sparing… to rein in that verbosity. To resist the desire to show off endlessly with flashy wordplay. To save a bit for later.

There is always a way to say it more succinctly. More elegantly. I recommend spending the time to find it.

Assuming editorial approval, the script then goes to the artist. In an ideal world, I then like to let the artist work up an interpretation of the script in pencil. Progress can then be reviewed and I can adjust any awkward dialogue to suit the visual music. Pick up on anything that has been missed.

When everyone is happy, final inks can be completed and lettering applied. The lettering is very important. I like to have input on the placing of balloons and captions. A rhythm that seemed to work well in script may be disrupted by artistic innovation in the eventual visualisation. Now is the opportunity to adjust that.  

A couple of words trimmed to balance a caption with a containing frame that turns out smaller than expected. A change of emphasis in dialogue to play off a character’s expression or body language.  A heavy word-balloon split and linked to a subsequent panel.  

The final vital task is to copy edit.  I have never yet had a story that was lettered perfectly first time. Or even finally for that matter.  

Remember, even if you’ve sweat blood for weeks to achieve the perfect script – and been paid for it, even spent the money – the job is not complete until word and image are combined on the page, and the book is at the printers. Until then, a script is just part of a work-in-progress. It can always be improved. It’s counter-productive to be too precious.

Of course, perfection is an unrealisable goal. Especially if you’re working on a regular monthly series. You are constrained by the production process. There is always a final deadline exerting pressure. And so inevitable compromise.  

But YOUR name is going on the cover of the book. And it’s going to be there forever. So it’s worth going that extra yard or two to minimise the potential for future embarrassment.  

Believe me.

And then – while you are sweating over the next script – the printed copy of the one completed will arrive. And will invariably reveal mistakes previously unnoticed—despite the best effort of all the combined fine minds concerned. Cue tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth. And other expressions of frustration with ‘bloody comics.’  

So, simply, that’s pretty much all there is to it.

There are a few useful tricks of the trade that can be picked up through studying the storytelling technique of different creators. But use them as aids to learning, not as blueprints. We’re all of us, inevitably, products of our influences, but it’s vital to develop your own distinct direction and explore it.

Consider the balance of word and picture on a page. If you’re calling for a page heavy with small frames it helps to keep dialogue on it sparse. And then perhaps contrast it with a more narrative following page. An average of five panels per page is my rule of thumb. With maybe a 150 words on it.

But there are no rules. 

Some pages have more, others less. The layout serves the story. Scene changes can be eased by letting closing dialogue bleed on into a new scene’s establishing shot. Little semiotic tricks can add layers of meaning to copy. It is useful to bear in mind the book’s eventual pagination to take advantage of page-turn reveals or double-page spreads where these may be appropriate dramatic devices. But for me, the single element by which any story stands or falls is the strength and depth of the characters in it and the writer’s relationship with them.

Even the most ludicrous and outlandish theme can be imbued with plausibility if the writer knows his character inside out, and can find that germ of simple human truth which rings sympathetic with the reader. It is never easy. Every single writing project begins with the need to confront that blank-page terror. To despoil that snow-white field with a tortured imprecision of reluctant words.

Choose your own stimulant, meditative technique, magical incantation to summon the aid of literary demons to transport you into The Zone. But you still have to sit down alone in your cell and make it happen. The spur of deadline, or impending poverty, is useful. So also can be the intimidating knowledge that families other than your own may not eat unless you get some madness down on the page for their breadwinner to draw and get paid for.

Bottom line, it’s sheer hard work and miserable endurance that will get you through. There is no substitute for tenacity and application. In the end you just have to walk it—one word after another until you reach The End.

The only way to beat the terror is to engage it, bombard it with ideas and imagination.  

Rattle the keyboard. Blurt sentences onto paper. Shuffle them repeatedly until they assume a pleasing order.  Recognise that order when you achieve it. Take fleeting pleasure in your accomplishment.

And then start all over again.

Writing is hell.  A disease that will devour your life. Good luck if you’ve caught it already.  You’ll need it. There’s not much more rewarding but it certainly isn’t easy. But then, as an old pal of mine has occasionally noted: You shouldn’t join if you can’t take a joke. 


LEPUS BOOKS 

So, that said – and while comics provided me with a means of self-expression, and an adequate income for several decades – it occurred to me about ten years ago that I was fast approaching the age of sixty and if I didn’t soon get around to writing the novel I’d expected since my early teens I would, it might well quickly be too late. So I quietly slipped away from the comics world and got busy…

Sitting around at home. Listening to pointless radio phone-ins. Giving up a lifetime smoking habit. Bodging overdue home improvements. Assiduously watching the infinitesimal growth of the cacti in my collection. Playing online poker. What I didn’t do for a number of dismal years was sit down at my keyboard and do any serious writing.

That old blank-page terror again.

Was I actually up to the job of writing a proper novel? A standalone story with no pictures? Serious literary types read novels, didn’t they? Pored over every word? And the world of book publishing was rarefied. Full of Oxbridge intellectuals. Erudite editors guarded by clever agents. I wasn’t really good enough to take them on, was I? And, anyway, I was too old to be a new boy.

I carried on watching the cacti for another year.

Eventually my family and friends got sick of me moping around and making excuses. Various  gun-like ultimatums were produced and held to my reluctant head. I was forced into my study and – after a couple more weeks of watching the cursor blink hypnotic on an empty wilderness of white – my fingers began tapping tentative at the keyboard.

Several months later and I’d completed BOOK THIRTEEN. The story of an ageing writer struggling, for many years, to complete the final volume in his cult best-selling series of weird detective novels, featuring a lead character known as ‘Leepus’.

80,000-odd words. I reckoned that counted as a novel. And – while it was inevitably imperfect – it wasn’t totally incoherent. I was actually quite pleased with it on the quiet. But not so pleased that I was prepared, or patient enough, to hawk it around publishers or agents. 

For good or ill, however, the technology and online retail platforms now exist to allow anybody – as long as they fill enough pages with words – to, singlehanded,  write, produce, publish and bring to the cold, hard marketplace any kind of book they choose to.

So that is route I took. Establishing my own imprint: LEPUS BOOKS. Editing, designing, learning the software and processes required to eventually bring BOOK THIRTEEN into satisfactory three-dimensional existence.

Once Lepus Books existed, it seemed a little bit churlish to keep it to myself. So I invited a few pals with stuff to say but little chance of finding a commercial outlet for it, to let me employ my dubious experience in bringing their work to polished, publishing-ready condition on a cooperative, non-profit basis. Stick the Lepus Books logo on it. Get it out there and see who would read it.

Meanwhile, liking the sound of the weird detective, Leepus, from BOOK THIRTEEN, I decided, if the Old Writer had run out of steam with his character, I would co-opt him for my own ends. Two Leepus books are completed and published so far. I will soon begin work on the third.

Lepus Books currently comprises four authors with a tentative Northampton connection, with seven works between them. If you are moved to you can buy one direct from the Lepus Books website, or through the usual megacorp platforms.


And so, to finish. The following is the introductory chapter to a work, loosely based around the course of the River Nene that will, hopefully, be illustrated by my annoyingly talented artist brother Richard James and published by Lepus Books.


Under the Bridge

Down the hill from the house- where once-upon-a-time long gone you creep before dawn from your bed, haul your old rods-and-tackle-burdened Raleigh from the garage, and then freewheel through the suburbs and the enclaved Domesday village to plumb the depths of the eerie mist that fills the river valley.  It’s the 21st Century now; and you are fifty years older, riding a Toyota 4×4.  And the roads have been re-routed.  Estates of ‘80s “overspill” named for the feudal farms they cover.  A roaring expressway crossed to unearth the vestigial country lane that finds you the old mill and the Boat Club.

You pull up behind the flat-pack retail park – built while you aren’t watching, but screened by rustling lines of poplars you think you remember being planted – beside a ditch-bank screed with fly-tipped home improvement debris, and bags of dog shit hung on brambles.

So you hide temptation under the seats, arm the dashcam and blink the locks on.  The old lane extant beyond a rattly galvanised gate that permits only pedestrian traffic.  Flanking willows and hawthorns- flagged with those scraps of wind-tattered plastic some quaint urban folklorist christens “witches’ knickers”.  A half-mile to the concrete section across the culvert that carries the flood drain into the millpond.  Pant-liner and tissue flotsam.  January floods once mask the way here and you veer into rushing peril, plunge breathless into the shit-brown torrent and go under- bike, tackle, corned beef sarnies, flask and all.  It takes most of your strength to recover your kit and transport; the remainder to plod back sodden up the endless hill to restorative porridge and maternal tutting.  The rest of the day spent reading Bradbury in an armchair by a three-bar fire and wishing you were fishing.

The mill that once grinds here pre-dates you.  Never a trace of a building; just the race beneath the track, still seething into the millpond beyond the low wall of crumbling redbrick.  ‘Strictly No Fishing’ now, by order of the Boat Club.  Once there are perch for as long as your worms last.  And carp as big as submarines, lolling among the lily pads on peach-coloured summer mornings.  You tremble as you cast your crust to these leviathans.  Sigh with relief as they sneer and spurn it.

The ghosts of two Polish brothers drifting too, now.  And a sly boy you can’t put a name to.  The brothers bored with perch; they leave their kit unattended to try their luck in the Chub Stream.  A tin-plate cigarette case glinting at the top of their canvas satchel with faded initials inked on it in an angular foreign script.  A prized possession.  The sly boy eyes it.  Dips it.  Flips it spiteful into the water.  Watches it glint through the murk as it slips to the bottom.  Sunken treasure.  Lost for ever.  Probably still down there.  The sly boy challenged and searched, of course, by the righteously outraged brothers.  No evidence.  Not proven.  A cold case half a century old now.

You walk on past the Boat Club’s armoured gates, turn down the narrow path along the fenced-in Chub Stream.  Bushes here that you once push through; the far bank overhung with alder adorned with bright snagged-floats and traces: mis-cast offerings to the Chub God.

The high steel guillotine of the lock-gate stark against the sky’s grey riot.  A chiffchaff shrill in a blackthorn restrained by plasticated chain-link.  Across the lock on the footbridge.  You stare over at the downstream concrete abutments; scabs of lichen mark the tideline on the dank boarding-steps cast in them.  The water clearer than it once is- a post-industrial bonus.  You look for the angle-iron spike that lurks forgotten beneath the surface, jutting unseen from the slimy bed.  The spike that rips open the diving youth’s rib cage.  His blood welling and coiling out dark in the silt-grey opacity of the water as it drowns him.  You wonder if this horrible scene is one that you really witness- or a folk memory made actual in the imagination, reinforced by periodic reviewing.  Whichever; in your mind’s eye it happens again now, and you shudder.  The shocked youths pale and staring.  And then one of them running and howling for someone in the Boat Club to “Ring for the fuckin’ ambulance fuckin’ now, mate!”  And two more in the water splashing and heaving.  The boy white on the steps and bleeding.  They’re saying he’s not fuckin’ breathing.  One’s crying.  One’s tugging his hair in fistfuls.  Another’s trying to light a ciggy with cupped hands damp and shaking.

An ambulance, two-tone blaring.  Firemen with a rubber boat.  A stern plod in a pale blue Morris Minor. The stretcher eventually carried off- past the half-dressed honour guard of skinny lads straggled pale along the Chub Stream.  Dead boy under a damp scarlet blanket.  His draped face looks as if it’s melting.

Names and addresses gruffly noted.  Witnesses dismissed to shiver home unspeaking.  Counsellors not even born yet.

Accidental death, boys; now and then it happens.

A ten-foot bund around the washlands, a reservoir dug to detain the surge when the river becomes unruly.  “Pity those poor devils down in the Hollow,” Old Doll says in history, looking out at the downpour with a fag on.  The town no longer prone to inundation; and the wildfowl have somewhere to swim round.  That has to be a good thing.

But the Dead Man’s Arm is all but lost to hydrodynamic engineering.  The ancient oxbow where the pike lurk.  Where Wiggy bites the slimy head off that squirming eel.  Where .22 pellets from a hidden sniper drone past as you stagger tackle-laden to join the fishing gang- late and fair game for slaughter from ambush.

Duck and cover behind the reeds in the oozy mud and sour wet cow shit.  Scrabble out your old Webley pistol.  A flash of pale flesh across the water.  Snap-shot deftly rapping carelessly exposed knuckles.  Fitz squealing and capering wildly.  Gang sniggering from sly concealment, mustering in the raw sleet-wind to observe the impressive bloom of bruising.  The casualty nursing his wound and sullen.  A Nelson lit and offered to take the sting off.

Washlands now but where have the hare gone?  The sky without a cloud in.  The tracks of small mammals in the fields of ice-crisped snow so bright you have squint to see across them to the hedge-line where your snares are.  Books gleaned from the library- full of lore imparted by tweedy rural sages and grizzled poachers; these are the romances that lead you astray here.  Wire snares and vermin traps from the gun shop.  You want to be a cunning lad, to understand the creatures that run mysterious and free in the nighttime.  You want to catch and kill them.  Possess the Nature of them.  Collect them; still their restless motion in the name of knowing.  Like ragged butterflies pinned to cork.  The Park Museum’s vast glass case of shot stuffed birds, with their brittle beady eyes and threadbare ruffled feathers.  Dad’s prized box of raided eggs nestled safe in sheep’s wool.  You’re seven in the springtime woods and he’s teaching you how to prick them with a thorn and blow them.  The yolk bubbling slow and yellow.  Never any rabbits or hares in your snares though.  One less crime to atone for.

Later, of course, you’re sensitised and counter-cultured.  Primitive urges suppressed and transferred.  Night fishing is the thing this year- spiced with dope and Luxembourg phasing in and out of distortion.  A Rizla on your line for a bobbin.  The sickly ochre of the town seeping down across the black water and into your bivvi.  You wish it’s a girl creeping in there with you.

Now the girls have all been and gone, and you’re plodding a wet field poxed with sheep shit.  The sky in monochrome uproar.  Wind flinging hard rain at you.  This direction always forbidding; the old tannery not far off.  Two deep pits intervening- a private fishery now, but once they’re ringed by skeletal willows with scabby bark peeling from them.  An underfoot tangle of black rotting branches.  Sometimes you push through this dead zone, stare uneasy at the brimming ponds of crusted mustard foam.  And the rusty waste-pipe dribbling steamy.  The world here tainted and you back off wary.

A cormorant diving today.  Cormorants: since when do they claim the hinterland?  And egrets?  Red kites?  Buzzards?  If you tell Dad you see these immigrants haunting the ‘60s edgelands, he tells you you’re “Talking daft, boy.  Now buck up and get the lawn raked before your dinner!”  Dead now, Dad- probably off stalking the rim of some draughty mire, clutching his bins and whistling mournful.  Pretty much like you are, but marginally less substantial.  All that adolescent warfare pointless.  We old men win in the end.

And suddenly you’re restless.  Eager to get back to the future.  Grandkids waiting, kicking their heels before Nan’s Sunday dinner; adventuring virtual realities, mapping new dimensions.  It’s never the same as it once is.  Migrants trapped and tagged with GPS now, instead of killing-jars and shotguns; refugees- tracked, counted, harried from beneficent sanctuary to grudged reservation.  Wild hearts owned; arcane lives exposed and plundered, measured and displayed as lifeless data.  The flight of the bar-code godwit.

Conservation: everything’s different but nothing changes; it just gets smaller.

You stand and wait on the lock bridge, watch a diesely narrowboat stepping down.   A kingfisher oil-slick on the surface spiraling iridescent.  Prop wash thrashes it into extinction, wavelets smacking their lips against concrete.  You stay while it chugs off around the bend and its wake-chop settles.

A tern twisting and dipping and coming up empty.  A coot high-stepping squeamish past a dead roach in the reeds floating bloated.  A hedgehopping woodpecker chuckling gleeful; you look up but fail to spot it.

Damp cold seeping through your jacket.

It all seems significant, but it isn’t.

Just water under the bridge, mate.  Life oozing away down the river.

Copyright © Jamie Delano 2016 – All rights reserved

Originally published at http://lepusbooks.co.uk/short-prose-by-jamie-delano/

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